I recently heard someone refer to this past summer as “the summer of Trump.” The person who said it was, of course, Donald Trump, but in spite of his gift for hyperbole you would have to admit that he had a point.
From the moment that Trump announced his candidacy for president on June 16th, he dominated the press, the airwaves and the Internet every day for the entire season like no one had ever done before. It is especially remarkable when you consider that he hadn’t really done anything, or been anything, that he hadn’t done or been for decades.
Comedians had a hard time making fun of the situation, because nothing they could say was funnier, or more bizarre, than what was actually going on. Cable news channels would cut away from live interviews with prominent presidential candidates whenever Donald Trump did so much as clear his throat. When they did get around to interviewing those other candidates, the questions were invariably about Trump.
Like most people who watch politics, I did not see this coming. When the Donald started talking about running last spring, I just thought it was the same thing he does with every election cycle, exercising his unfailing instinct for free publicity. Even when he made the “official” announcement, I assumed that it was a charade which would come to an end before it became necessary to make financial disclosures, sacrifice business ventures, or walk away from a hit TV franchise.
I am not particularly surprised that his popularity took off the way it did in June, given his name recognition and entertainment value. The surprise was that it continued to grow in spite of numerous controversies, revelations and confrontations.
The first of those was a run-in with John McCain, during which Trump declared that McCain was not a real war hero. (If he’s not, I don’t know what you would have to do to become one.) I thought that the political right would rise up in righteous indignation, especially given the fact that Trump himself had avoided military service via three student deferments and a medical deferment for a bone spur in his foot. (He doesn’t remember which foot it was.)
Then came his famous confrontation with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who questioned him at the first Republican primary debate about derogatory remarks he has made in the past about women. Following that debate, Trump referred to Kelly as “mean, unprofessional and overrated,” and implied that her behavior had been hormonal. He later re-tweeted a post calling her a “bimbo.”
Surely, I thought, Trump has gone after “a bridge too far” with such a severe, over-the-top attack on a newsperson who is extremely popular with Republicans. Beyond that, I assumed that just about any woman in America, regardless of her political persuasion, would be seriously offended on many levels.
Apparently not. After the dust settled Trump was still standing, his poll numbers better than ever. He went on to insult nearly every other conservative icon over the course of the next few weeks, calling George Will a complete disaster, Charles Krauthammer an overrated loser, and Karl Rove an incompetent jerk.
Clearly, his fighting and feuding with establishment figures was not hurting him among his followers. They liked it. Even so, issues matter to heavily partisan primary voters, especially the Tea Party and evangelical Christian factions which made up much of Trump’s summer surge.
As the media focused more intensely on Donald Trump, it turned out plenty of material that should trouble his supporters. In the past he declared himself strongly pro-choice, endorsed a single-payer healthcare system, favored higher taxes on the rich, and (gasp!) praised and supported Hillary Clinton.
Yet many of the same people, including conservative talk-radio personalities, who found Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney too liberal had no problem with Trump’s record. How is that possible? More to the point, what does it have to do with you and me?
I think there are two factors that explain the Trump phenomenon, one positive and one negative, and ultimately both of them have very real implications for our industry. Being of Irish descent, I’ll look at the dark side first.
In his announcement speech, Trump indicated that there was some sort of crime wave flooding across our southern border, and that he would build a wall to stop it. He later doubled down, calling Mexican immigrants “criminals, drug dealers and rapists,” and pledged to deport all of the illegal immigrants living in the United States.
That sentiment touched a nerve in this country, perhaps even more dramatically than the media-savvy Trump expected. There is a huge reservoir of discontent in America right now, bigger than at almost any moment in living memory, and at times like this it becomes very tempting to single out one particular group to blame for society’s ills. History is rife with examples, and they aren’t pretty.
There is an estimated population of 11.3 million immigrants living in this country illegally, about half of which came from Mexico. That number has actually been declining from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007, which happens to coincide with the beginning of the Great Recession. Most of those people came here to work, and in fact make up more than 5 percent of the work force.
Are there criminals in that number? Of course. In a population roughly equivalent to the state of Ohio, you would expect to find tens of thousands of felons.
The notion of rounding up and deporting 11 million people is absolutely unrealistic in a free country, not to mention the fact that many of them are parents of citizens. Seven percent of all the K-12 students in America have at least one parent who is here illegally.
A wall is almost equally unfeasible, considering that our border with Mexico is 1900 miles long. The Great Wall of China is one of the engineering marvels of the world, but the enduring lesson it represents is not that we are capable of building cool walls. It’s that they don’t work.
Ironically, I think the good part of the Trump phenomenon is something that many people see as a negative. They call it “swagger.” Here’s another word for it: confidence.
In 1978, I had the good fortune of hearing Ronald Reagan speak in person (at an NSSEA convention, no less). I agreed with the things he said about the relationship between business and government, but the thing that blew me away was his ability to project confidence.
I don’t simply mean self-confidence, but confidence in the rest of us, our country and our founding principles. When Reagan was elected he brought that attitude into Washington, sweeping away the “malaise” of the late 1970s. The effect on business was profound.
Nothing lasts forever, and I still believe that the Trump effect will fade into our political history. It may already be doing so by the time you read this.
Beyond that, I am not about to make any predictions regarding the next presidential election. I just hope that on January 20, 2017, our new chief executive, man or woman, steps up to the podium with a little swagger.
by Kevin Fahy
You can e-mail Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org.